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Wolfville, Nova Scotia
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Cinematic Memes

Chris Campbell

Asa Butterfield and Chloe Grace Moretz in Hugo

Asa Butterfield and Chloe Grace Moretz in Hugo

As part of the Making Learning Connected MOOC (#clmooc) we've been talking about memes. The most common ones are the clever images combined with text that illustrate a point. Diving into those is a lot of fun and with sites like Know Your Meme you can spend a whole lot of time going through them. In reflecting a bit more about the whole idea of memes and my particular area of teaching – filmmaking – made me realize that memes are a lot more than just an image with text. They're a central part of the filmmaking process which is collaborative and intertwined with different memes that are around.

A movie is not about what it is about. It is about how it is about it: about the way it considers its subject matter, and about how its real subject may be quite different from the one it seems to provide.
— Roger Ebert

Storytelling in general and filmmaking in particular helps us make sense of the world. We take our hopes, dreams, and fears and can deal with them safely on a screen in front of us. What is going on in the world and our lives influences the stories that we tell and the memes in the stories that have been told before change and evolve over time. A brilliant examination of how this works is in Mark Cousins' book, The Story of Film, which then became a tv series, The Story of Film: An Odyssey. At the beginning of the book Cousins looks at a visual idea from director Carol Reed in the film Odd Man Out. In Reed's film a man in trouble looks into a glass of beer and sees his troubles with faces appearing. He then mentions how there is a similar shot in Jean-Luc Godard's film 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, and a similar shot in Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver. The visual ideas are connected and it provides an interesting way to frame a discussion of filmmaking.

For me, it's important to watch films to know about the history and to be inspired. It's part of being a member of a community that changes and evolves. Filmmaking is one of the most collaborative of arts as you always need to work with people and technology. I love establishing the context for filmmaking by watching and discussing films. With memes the fascinating thing is that sometimes the influences are explicit and conscious and sometimes they are not. Sometimes it may only be the audience that makes the connection. When making a film you will often have references to other films or stories that you share with the crew. You'll watch films together to figure out how you are going to tell your story or rework something that someone has done before.

Don’t be too sophisticated. Just listen to your heart and trust your eyes. That’s enough.
— Bela Tarr

It's easier than ever to find, watch, and remix films. A recent way to see how things have been done before is to watch supercuts, where people assemble similar scenes or shots together. You can see how people have broken the fourth wall, or how they don't say "goodbye" when hanging up the phone. These supercuts can also illustrate the visual ideas and techniques that are distinctive to some directors such as Stanley Kubrick's use of one point perspective, the way that Steven Spielberg photographs faces in key moments, or Spike Lee's distinctive double dolly shot. While we may not notice these things are much in the context of the film, when you change the context and put them together, some things seem obvious.

Recognizing and thinking about visual and thematic connections is one of the secondary pleasures of loving films. It's a moment of understanding of how the meaning is constructed and how it connects to what has been made before. I'd like to trace two different scenes from 2013 films that I noticed. The first is in Pacific Rim and the second is in Frances Ha.

Guillermo del Toro's Pacific Rim is filled with many different memes from film and even explicitly refers to a the cinematic sub genre of giant monster films (like Godzilla) which are called Kaiju. The monsters in the film are called Kaiju and they are the enemies that the heroes face. One of the key scenes in the film features actor Idris Elba delivering an inspirational speech to soldiers before a battle and that reminded me of the St. Crispin's day speech in Shakespeare's play Henry V). My familiarity with that speech is drawn mainly from Kenneth Branagh's film where he delivers the rousing speech. Laurence Olivier also directed and starred in an earlier adaptation, which would have influenced Branagh's. In thinking about the scene it made me notice that in Pacific Rim the pilots wear suits that are like armour.

The contexts of Shakespeare's play, the Olivier, Brannagh, and del Toro variations are interesting in how they change things slightly. Olivier's film was produced during World War II) and received some funding from the British government with the intention that it would be inspirational to those fighting in the war. By the time we get to the del Toro version of the speech the army is made up of a relatively diverse group of people from different countries who are literally fighting monsters from outer space. Instead of turning people in the enemy or others, we've created monsters to fight and channel our fears and unite us.

In a lighter context Noah Baumbach has many references to French films in Frances Ha, with the most notable one being a lovely sequence where co-writer and star Greta Gerwig runs through the streets of New York with David Bowie's song Modern Love) on the soundtrack.

In Leos Carax' 1986 film Bad Blood, Denis Lavant runs through the streets of Paris accompanied by the same music, but running in a different direction. You don't need to know that they are connected to enjoy either of the scenes, but recognizing the connection can be the starting point for exploration. It can open a world to discover new ideas, new directors, new ways to tell stories, and new ways to understand the world. For me, that is at the core of what teaching is about.